Written by Ashley A. Bono, LPC, LMFT
In the course of my clinical career as a therapist, I’ve seen many people present with different mental health diagnosis. By far one of the most perplexing mental health problems that I have worked with is self harm. Since I work mainly with children and adolescents, the problem of self harm is one that I come across on occasion. Each time a case of self harm presents itself, the following questions tend to come up: How did this happen? What made my child decide to hurt themselves? How do I respond to my child wanting to injure themselves? How do I get them to stop? While there is no clear cut answer to these questions, many professionals have undertaken the tremendous task of researching possible reasons behind the self harming behaviors. Listed below are some of the reasons that researchers have so far uncovered when it comes to self injury.
- Low Emotional Affect. Whenever I ask young people why they tend to cut or try any form of self injury, the most common answer that I get is that they want to feel something. Many individuals who self injure tend to feel numb, or feel like their emotions are not working very well. Self harm tends to kick start an emotional response by putting the individual’s primary focus on the pain that the injury has (Hooley, J.M., & Franklin, J. C., 2018).
- An increased desire to punish self. Many individuals who have self harming behaviors primarily do so with the idea to punish themselves for a perceived slight or wrong (Hooley, J.M., & Franklin, J. C., 2018). This is especially true in cases where the individual has undergone extensive trauma (Hooley, J.M., & Franklin, J. C., 2018).
- Increased attention from others. While some individuals self injure to punish themselves, other do so in order to gain attention from loved ones or peers (Hooley, J.M., & Franklin, J. C., 2018). Because of the serious nature of self injury, the individual may get extra attention from people that they usually don’t get attention from due to the fact that they are deliberately putting themselves in a potentially dangerous situation (Hooley, J.M., & Franklin, J. C., 2018).
- A desire to fit in. Believe it or not, individuals that self injure can be heavily influenced by peers that tend to self injure. Individuals who self injure often have a hard time making healthy connections with others, which drives them to be attracted to those who tend to show the same negative behaviors (Hooley, J.M., & Franklin, J. C., 2018).
While the possible reasons for self injury may vary there is one question that has yet to really be fully answered: How do we treat self injurious behavior? Some researchers agree that it is important to treat the self injury at its very source: an unbalanced mindset (Hooley, J. M., & St. Germain, S. A. (2014). Many individuals who self injure have a low self esteem to begin with, so it is essential to help the individual see the value that they possess as human beings in order to effectively treat the self injurious behaviors (Hooley, J. M., & St. Germain, S. A. (2014). It is also important to help the individual find healthy ways to cope with pain and activate a positive emotional response besides going for razor blade (Hooley, J. M., & St. Germain, S. A. (2014).
If you’re the parent of a child or teenager who has self injured or is currently self-injuring, you may be wondering what my role as a parent in all this is. First and foremost self injury is a sign of deep emotional pain. It does not necessarily mean that you’ve been a terrible parent or have not been there for your kids. In fact, there are times when kids tend to cut as a result of not getting too much support at school or in other environmental areas. This problem, however, requires extra vigilance on your part as a parent. If you’re dealing with a child or adolescent that is currently self harming, here are some tips to help you navigate this problem:
- Don’t panic or punish your child for self-injury. As we said before, many individuals how self injure tend to do so to feel something other than a flat affect or numbness. Yelling at your child or panicking because they are self injuring often causes a child to retreat further in to themselves to the point where they may not want to disclose anything to you.
- Don’t be afraid to have hard conversations with your kids about their self injury. There are instances when cutting can be a sign that your child or teen wants help. It is important to listen to what they are saying through their behavior, and also be willing to talk to them about what is really going on. Be mindful of their reactions as well as understand that your child may disclose something about you that you may not want to hear. However, if you let your child know that you will do your part as a parent to help change the situation, your child may end up being willing to open up to you more.
- Be sure to put everything that your child could use to injure themselves out of their reach. If your child is self injuring it is important to ensure their safety first and foremost. This may mean that you have to do weekly room checks or check to see if any new injuries are coming up on them physically. This may also mean that you have to put away things that you use on a daily basis (i.e. knifes, razor blades, curling irons, etc.).
- Work with your child to put together a plan of action for when they feel like cutting. Many children or teens don’t know how to effectively cope with painful feelings so they resort to cutting or other maladaptive behaviors. Having a coping plan of action helps build up the necessary skills that children need in order to adapt fully and in a healthy way to a difficult situation. This may mean, mom and dad, that you as a family have to get creative with coming up with skills that your child can practice. It also may be helpful to put together a list of skills and strategies up in your child’s room in order to help them remember what skills they agreed to.
While self injury may be a difficult problem to navigate, it is still possible to walk through it and come out the other side a little bit wiser. The key to navigating this problem is being willing to help your child or your family member who self injures find a way to express their emotions as well as allows them to feel their emotions in a healthy and genuine way.